Book: Armada

Armada by Ernest Cline

Summary: A flying saucer appears in front of Zack Lightman. Not just any flying saucer, but one from the video game he has been religiously playing. Is he going crazy? Or is he becoming like his deceased dad, who journaled crazy stories of video game conspiracies? Think of this as Last Starfighter meets a mature video game industry.

Rating: This book is pure young adult. In particular, young adult male nerd. Yep, a nerdy dude who plays video games finds that his skills there translate over to a grand adventure, including a fairly painful set of scenes in which, yes, he gets the girl. On the other hand, it’s a rather fun romp through some nostalgic computer and science fiction history, so I’d definitely recommend this to my 13 year old self. Maybe this is what it would have been like to read Ender’s game as an adult when it came out? Not nearly as good as the author’s previous “Ready Player One”.

Book: Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

Summary: As an undergraduate physics major at Caltech one of the constant backgrounds of the physics department was its involvement in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Many of my friends did undergraduate research (SURFs) with LIGO, others went on to become professors who were part of LIGOs scientific collaboration. I took a single quarter of General Relativity from Kip Thorne, my god those homework sets were challenging, and remember learning the basics of how gravitational waves work along with the challenge of convincing ourselves that the waves were an actual prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity (even Einstein oscillated on this point.) I also remember quite distinctly hearing about chaos in the project itself, mumblings about its large size, and criticisms in the larger physics (and astronomy) community about whether LIGO would succeed. In 2016 the LIGO collaboration reported the first direct detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes.

Janna Levin has written a wonderfully human story about the challenges behind conceiving, funding, and then eventually building LIGO. This is a story less about the science itself (though the descriptions of this are excellent) but more about the journey and the people. With access to many of the main players the book is made up of a a series of chapters focusing on different key players and events. Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and Ron Drever are the three physicists at the heart of the story, but there are other equally important characters like Robert Vogt (early director) and Joseph Webber (early controversial pioneer of gravitational wave detection). Dr. Levin does a wonderful job weaving together this history with her own personal interviews of these larger than life characters.

Rating: (taken from my amazon review). I adored this book, mostly because it gives you a different perspective into the world of big physics experiments and how they are originally conceived and then carried to completion. This book isn’t the kind of pop science whose main goal is trying to convey the challenging science of theoretical physics (not saying that these bad, just that this is no that book!), instead this the story of the personal journeys that occur along the way to an amazing achievement like LIGO. With direct access to many of the main players in the collaboration, the book spends different chapters on their different perspectives of the history and controversies (and oh there were a lot) behind LIGO. The closest comparison for the style of this book is “The Soul of a New Machine”, Tracy Kidder’s description of the race to build a new microcomputer. Similar to that book by the time you finish this one you come away even more amazed at the successes of large engineering and science projects, and also see them as the result of an at times messy and chaotic process, not just the result of a “we had an idea” and “then we built it” process. If you dig getting perspective on scientists and their journeys to discovery, this book is perfect for you

Book: Aurora

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Summary: An ark story of a journey to a nearby star, told by an interesting narrator. Like all good hard science fiction, proposes a variant on one of the solutions to the Fermi paradox. Lots of exploration of the social and biological challenges of survival on a journey to the stars. The later especially noteworthy as often overlooked in hard science fiction.

Rating: The plot, such as it is, is not particularly gripping. But the ideas and thoughts put in to the hard science part of the novel make this one worth the read.

Book: The Player of Games

The Player of Games (A Culture Novel Book 2) by Iain M. Banks

Summary: In the Culture universe technology has progressed so that society is satiated.  Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a master game player, respected and dominate in the Culture when the opportunity arises to play an exotic game, a game which a nascent civilization uses to enforce it’s totalitarian government.  A musing on games, the shock of fascism, and the future.

Rating: A good romp through a fun universe, if you’ve been following Alpha Go you’ll dig this.